Making a Good Idea Even Better
Arooga’s takes casual dining, sports-bar food “to the next level”
The sports bar concept was successful, but to Gary Huether Jr., that didn’t mean it couldn’t be better.
His vehicle for driving change has been Arooga’s Grille House & Sports Bar. He purchased a struggling restaurant in nearby West Hanover, Pa., and, after a year in which the facility was known as “On 22,” Arooga’s was formally introduced on July 26, 2008.
The name, which mimics the sound of a Model T horn, was picked via a customer contest. And when a second store opened a few weeks later to instantly positive reviews, the concept was off and running. It’s since grown to nine stores in and around the Greater Harrisburg area, creating a ubiquitous presence that the co-founder playfully labels “the Starbucks of sports bars in central Pennsylvania.”
“People typically thought, ‘Sports bar and grill, the food will be from the freezer to the fryer. I go there for the games, but I wouldn’t necessarily go there for dinner,’” says Huether, a former Snap-on Tools franchise owner. “We believe we have taken that casual dining, sports-bar food to the next level. Our menu is chef-created and we use fresh, quality ingredients.”
All mozzarella triangles consumed in the restaurants are hand-breaded with an in-house recipe, all salsa is made in-house and all chips, too, are made to order. Each of the 40 proprietary wing sauces were developed by the executive chef, and Huether is proud of Arooga’s standing as a five-time national winner at the annual Buffalo Wing Festival, known as the Super Bowl of wing festivals.
The menus cover significant ground and are designed to appeal to a variety of tastes. The online offering, in fact, is broken into 15 subsections and includes specialty items like Boston Lager steamed shrimp on the “Starting Line-Up” section, barbecued pork bellies on the “Main Event” section and house-made New York cheesecake on the “Desserts” section.
Managers and chefs gather weekly to discuss successful approaches and share techniques on how to generate new-item buzz with staff and guests. Arooga’s was recently certified by the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness for the significant number of gluten-free options available to diners, which Huether expects to be a particularly distinguishing characteristic going forward.
“We saw that as a trend, and you wouldn’t think of that as a sports bar typically,” he says. “But we thought it was important and said let’s pursue it and get ahead of the curve and offer this to our guests. Our employees went through the training and certification processes to make sure that we were not only saying it, but we were doing it, too.”
Speaking of trends, a trend toward expansion is the next item on the business agenda.
Arooga’s emerged from a field of 250 to be named winner of the “America’s Next Top Restaurant Franchise” competition put together by Sysco Foods. The process involved an application, operational information and an in-depth interview before the field was trimmed to 25, at which point judges visited each remaining finalist and scored them according to a predetermined set of contest criteria.
“One of the things that really set us apart was that we could compete within the casual dining segment, with the Applebees and the Fridays,” Huether says. “But we’d also be able to compete locally with the independent bars at nighttime. A lot of times in the casual concept, at 10 p.m., it’s over. But at 10 p.m., the nightlife is starting at a lot of our locations.”
The victory, Huether says, was validation for the original growth plan for the business – though he conceded it may have sped up the process. Four of the nine existing stores, all corporate-owned, have opened since the contest ended, but the focus going forward will have a franchise focus.
Huether planned to be the liaison to the franchisees before sitting down with Keith Swade in March 2013. Swade was CEO of a food-service brokerage company in Philadelphia until late 2012, when he and his partner sold the business. Arooga’s was his company’s largest food-service customer and he was a frequent visitor to the restaurants.
He loved the Arooga’s concept and business model and convinced Huether that the time was right to launch the franchise initiative.
After all appropriate franchise documents were updated, Arooga’s participated in the International Franchise show at the Javits Center in Manhattan last summer, and, in Huether’s words, “really started the process of going down the franchise route.” Arooga’s has subsequently been very diligent in selecting partners as legacy franchisees, and will announce the first signed agreements this spring.
“We still want to continue to open corporate stores as well. We think it’s important to have our skin in the game,” he says. “But we also have systems that we’ve developed and that we follow in our stores, and we thought, ‘We can reproduce this and it will work in other markets.’
“It’s a way to grow the business by utilizing experienced business partners with specific market knowledge in their franchise territories.”
The ultimate ratio of corporate to franchised stores is not defined, nor is the specific geography, though Huether says upcoming stores will be opening in Shippensburg, Pa. and near the main campus of Penn State University in State College, Pa.
Within five years, he says, the goal is to have a national presence with a total restaurant count approaching 60 to 75 units.
“As for the immediate future, the Arooga’s team will continue to work every day to provide our guests with the best restaurant experience,” he says. “We are always looking to improve on what we are doing.”